As many of our readers know, API was the first study abroad organization granted license to operate in Cuba after the regulations changed in late 2011 – early 2012. Since that time, API has continued to expand our semester, summer, January term, and customized program offerings in Cuba, and have hosted hundreds of students and many dozens of university partners on these programs.
Over the past few months, many API Texas staff have been fortunate enough to travel to Cuba to see these programs firsthand. We recently spoke with several of them to get their impressions on what this experience is really like for API students.
The staff we spoke to include:
- (SF) – Sharon Foerster – Academic Advisor / API Co-Founder / API Board Member
- (JL) – Julie Leitman – Associate Vice President for University Relations and Outreach / API Co-Founder / API Board Member
- (HP) – Holly Prendergast – Executive Assistant to the President, API
- (IT) – Ilene Tillman – Senior Regional Director (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont)
How many times prior to this trip had you ben to Cuba?
- SF – I’ve been to Cuba 4 times!
- JL – Only once… last April.
- HP – This was my first trip.
- IT – This was my second time visiting Cuba. I spent one week there in June 2015 and two weeks this past January 2016.
If it was your first time to Cuba, tell us about the preconceptions you had prior to visiting, and how your visit changed or reinforced those thoughts…
- JL – Even though this was my second time, I just feel like I am scratching the surface of all there is to know, learn, and navigate in Cuba. I remember being so surprised to see tour buses and so many tourists. I had naively thought that since U.S. citizens couldn’t visit Cuba, then there wasn’t a real tourist market – I was SO wrong. Tourism has been sustaining Cuba during the years of the embargo.
- HP – I tried to go into my trip without any expectations. I had done a considerable amount of reading on Cuba prior to visit but because the country is changing so rapidly and is in such a state of flux, I think it is difficult to be accurately prepared about what to expect. I feel that my visit was too short for me to be able to claim any type of expertise on the subject, but I found the trip very interesting and it felt a little like going back in time. There is definitely a noticeable wealth disparity and you can tell that the infrastructure is struggling to meet the demand in tourism, but you can also see how tourism is funding repairs and renovations around the city. I think it will be very interesting to see how the city changes over the next few years.
- IT – This wasn’t my first time going, but I tried to have very little expectations before going to Cuba. I really didn’t know what to expect, but when we first arrived I immediately knew we weren’t in the U.S. anymore. I was immediately struck by all the political graffiti and murals you see on the streets. Art is everywhere you look in Cuba. Not only does it feel like a time warp to the 1950’s with the old American cars, it also has a great deal of modern flair. The country is very much a contrast of new and old.One preconception I had prior to visiting Cuba was that Cubans might dislike or be aggressive towards Americans. My time in Cuba proved this to be untrue and I found the majority of Cubans I met very warm and welcoming. Most Cubans were curious about American beliefs and I didn’t feel any animosity for being an American.I was also worried that Cuba would be unsafe due all the political turmoil. And again, I must say I was wrong. There is a very large police presence on the streets in Havana and there are special police whose main function is to make sure nothing happens to tourists. This in itself made me feel very safe in Cuba.
In your mind, what is the ideal profile of an API Cuba student?
- SF – The ideal student is a serious student with a curious mind and a real desire to experience and appreciate the historical context in which Cuba has existed for so many years.
- JL – Someone who is curious…. loves digging into history and culture… can deal well with ambiguity… can go with the flow… is patient, and has a good sense of humor.
- HP – The ideal API Cuba student would be someone who is open, extroverted, and willing to go with the flow of things. If you are too schedule-oriented or sweat the small things, you will find Cuba very challenging. You need to be willing to disconnect yourself from the internet and some of the comforts of U.S. The Cubans I met were very chatty and told me that since they often do not have a lot to do for entertainment, they talk a lot, so be prepared to talk, share ideas/opinions, and make great progress in your Spanish speaking skills!
- IT – Flexibility is key in Cuba! I can’t stress this enough. Studying abroad in Cuba is not like studying abroad in Europe or any other place in the world. For example, in Cuba, you can’t just leave and travel to another country for the weekend whenever you wish. Traveling to other countries is not as accessible or easy as it would be in any other Latin American country. Also, communication is sparse in Cuba and you should not expect to have regular access to the internet and phone calls are very expensive. A student should be willing to fully immerse themselves in local culture and not rely on modern conveniences while living in Cuba.Sometimes in Cuba basic resources are not available. For example, you may go to a grocery store and they will not have basic foods or goods. It’s all about the experience, so keep that in mind when you get frustrated that some modern conveniences aren’t available. I think students will learn to love Cuba for the warmth of its people and the relaxed and inviting atmosphere, but I would go in with very little expectations.
What are the top 3 reasons a student should consider studying abroad in Cuba?
- SF – 1) To see both the positive and negative results of a socialist regime; 2) To experience first hand the spirit and resiliency of the Cuban people; 3) To live in a country that so strongly values and supports music and the arts.
- JL – 1) the student is looking to really get to dig into the culture… since they won’t have the opportunity to travel to other countries during their study term, they can really focus and dig into where they are and what the country is like; 2) The classes and excursions will enhance one’s knowledge of the country; 3) since students will be living in Cuba as a resident, they get the wonderful opportunity to take part in all the musical and cultural events that take place in the country for little cost!
- HP – 1) To witness a rapidly changing country and be able to see first-hand how those changes affect the local people and Cuba’s relationship with the U.S.; 2) To challenge yourself to disconnect a bit from modern life (constant internet connection, communicating via text/email rather than face to face conversations) and focus on personal growth; 3) To increase Spanish fluency and historical/cultural awareness of one of our geographically closest neighbors.
- IT – 1) It’s changing quickly!! If you want to experience Cuba before it changes too much, now is the time! Visiting Cuba now allows you to see a socialist country functioning without any support from the United States. As restrictions start to lift, you will start to see more American businesses opening up in Cuba. Right now the island is very secluded and it’s fascinating to see how the country functions; 2) It’s like no other place you have ever been in your life! Aren’t you intrigued by having the opportunity to live in a place as mysterious as Cuba that so few American have had a chance to see??; 3) To experience Cuban culture firsthand! When walking around Cuba I was impressed by its vibrancy. There is music and dancing everywhere, people are socializing in the streets day and night, and they welcome foreigners with open arms. I loved every minute of being in Cuba and felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Cuba early on. I think everyone that has a chance should jump on the opportunity to visit. It’s an experience you will never forget, and most definitely, will not regret!
API is currently accepting applications for the summer 2016 term. For more information on API’s study abroad programs in Cuba, visit our website.